Council Looks for Public Input on Carvolth Gateway Building

On March 8, 2021, Township of Langley council received a report for a development permit for a 12-storey modern office building in the Carvolth “Gateway” node at 198th Street and 88th Avenue of the Willoughby neighbourhood.

Rendering of Foundation Properties Proposal at 19800 & 88th Avenue

When the agenda was published, there were instantly some mixed reactions with residents commenting on its design, calling it a “great addition to Langley” and “I love it. Very interesting design. It’s about time Langley got more modern with architecture.”

Of course, others disagreed: “Is it just me or is that building quite the eyesore?” and “What the 🤬 is that !! Doesn’t suit Langley , futuristic looking Crap !”.

My own two cents was “I like that this one is getting a bit more experimental and unique. If you have 50% of Langley hating it, you’re probably doing something right 😂.” Of course, I probably was looking at the prettier renderings that were available in the report but not “advertised” by the Langley Advance Times.

Langley Times Advance March 7, 2021 Facebook post

Not surprisingly, many residents went well beyond criticism of the design, wondering about the standard fare: traffic, parking, etc. With several councillors obviously reading social media comments, these issues were all brought up during the March 8 meeting.

Councillor Kim Richter was the first to speak to the application, immediately requesting a 2 week deferral for an opportunity for feedback from the community. Her primary concern appeared to be the variance that would see the permit increased from 15 meters high, as it was rezoned to prior to the adoption of the Carvolth Neighbourhood Community Plan to 50 meters high, which is allowed within the plan. In fact, the minimum size in the node is 3 storeys, which would be approximately 13-15 meters high. So in order to follow the NCP, the proponent would have to either request a variance or some other mechanism.

The Carvolth NCP mandates a minimum of 3 storeys in the Gateway node, and allows for a maximum heights of 50m.

Councillor Blair Whitmarsh wondered what the rest of the plan is for that specific site, considering that it looks like they are only using about half of the land north of 88th Avenue at the interchange. This is a fair comment, especially considering that, according to the NCP, any “Tall Building” should come with a Master Plan with some specific suggestions on what should be included. As I went through the plan pretty thoroughly over the weekend and I didn’t see much resembling the master planning that the NCP requests. Staff explained that the 2018 subdivision that severed the lot resulted in the building of the new Firstwest Credit Union building to the south (of which there is no graphical context or perspective views in the application, which I think would be expected per the Carvolth NCP document). Staff sort of described the immediate area but didn’t speak about any master plan.

Gateway Node of the Carvolth NCP. Subject property in the southwest quadrant.

Councillor Bob Long inquired as to whether there were any responses from the public to mail outs, etc. Staff replied that they followed the standard mail out policy to the public about the development permit, and indicated that 28 mail out went out and there were no responses. 28. This sort of shows the ridiculousness of the concept that only current residents in the immediate vicinity of the plan are affected by rezonings and development permits, doesn’t it? These 28 residents are developers who have already bought out the surrounding lan (The Mitchell Group has bought up a good portion of the land south of 88th Ave and likely have many more holdings probably accounting for a good share of those 28 households. These households are, in fact, the least probably affected by most of the development activity since they won’t be around post development. It is those who actually stay and live in the community throughout the entire Willoughby and Langley area that are affected. By the way, Councillor Long didn’t make that rant.

Long continued with his questions, asking whether or not a “shadow study” was done, obviously in reference to future buildings. Staff said that isn’t generally a requirement in non-residential areas, but you, know, we aren’t less than 50km from a city that actually created a world reknown urban planning model named after it, or anything (Google “Vancouverism”). Councillor Long obviously didn’t like that it isn’t a requirement of these taller buildings, stating that he believes that taller buildings should come with a shadow study of some sort. While not technically a requirement, Chief Engineer Ramin Seifi isn’t entirely accurate, as the following straight out of the Carvolth NCP suggests:

“The intent of these guidelines is to encourage siting, massing and design that minimizes negative impacts on views, privacy, and solar access for individual units, reduce the perceived bulk of tall buildings, and minimize impacts of tall buildings on adjacent public streets and open spaces…”

Carvolth NCP

“An open spacing of tall buildings should be maintained to ensure adequate light, air, access and views for residents.”

Carvolth NCP

Maybe we missed that? You could almost forgive the mistake since it doesn’t explicitly say “shadows”, except that later on in the Carvolth NCP it does, and in some great detail:

“Ensure that the siting, form, and scale of buildings do not block significant views and solar access from existing or anticipated development, and that shadowing impacts on adjacent residential buildings and usable open spaces are minimized. Proposals for new projects should include sun/shade diagrams of the subject development and the surrounding properties at the following times:
» Equinox: 8 a.m., 12 noon, 4 p.m.
» Winter Solstice: 9 a.m., 12 noon, 3 p.m.”

Carvolth NCP

“A Master Plan for Large Sites and sites with Tall Buildings should describe in drawings and words for the site and its context the following issues:… Shadowing impacts on adjacent buildings and open spaces using sun/shade diagrams at the following times:
» Equinox: 8 a.m., 12 noon, 4 p.m.
» Winter Solstice: 9 a.m., 12 noon, 3 p.m.”

Carvolth NCP

Shadowing isn’t considered in nonresidential zones? Hmmm… they even had a picture for them!

Proposals with Tall Buildings should include a master plan, according to the Carvolth NCP.

Councillor Petrina Arnason followed this questioning with a related question but in a way that showed how unprepared staff was for this grilling. When Arnason asked if this building was in an area (plan) that anticipated this sort of height:

“This Gateway area, I’m wondering… if it can be described as an area where there’s a range of heights that was anticipated… so where this would fall into that range if there is one…?”

Councillor Petrina Arnason

Seifi, first not understanding the question, still didn’t have an answer to the question. While I personally understand Councillor Arnason can ask things in convoluted ways at time, it was pretty easy for me to understand that she was asking if there were were a range of height requirements available in the Carvolth plan.

“I’m not sure if I quite understand the question… is the question what the specific uses that might be contemplated…?”

Ramin Seifi, response to Councillor Arnason question about height requirements

Arnason went on to painfully clarify the question with specific examples about the number of storeys that might be considered. Seifi’s response: “I’ll have to look that up”.

Yes, anyone familiar with the Carvolth NCP, much less the history of the development permit in question, should know the maximum height of tall building in the plan is 50m – exactly the height of this subject building. So someone knew the plan at least a little bit at some point in the application process (probably the architect and developer).

Ramin Seifi later circled back to answer, incorrectly, that there is “no maximum height requirement in the designation… there is a minimum requirement no smaller than 3 storeys… there is no maximum requirement.”

Artist rendering of the 200th Street Gateway Corridor looking towards Gateway node, Carvolth NCP, 2018

Councillor Steve Ferguson then specifically asked what the maximum height could be in the Willoughby neighbourhoods, which Seifi then put words in his mouth and turned the discussion to the maximum allowance for wood framed buildings, although this wasn’t Ferguson’s question. I don’t know if its because of Seifi’s audio technical troubles, but this has been an ongoing trend, with Seifi often ignoring Councillor’s actual questions or at least not understanding them.

Artists rendering of Highway 1/Gateway node from Carvolth NCP, 2018

Councillor Eric Woodward followed with a line of questioning asking why this application was going through a variance process instead of a new rezoning process, especially considering the significant difference in the growth of the plan. Seifi clarified that while there was a subdivision in 2018, the rezoning was actually back in 2001, well before the adoption of the Carvolth NCP in 2013. Woodward pushed again for clarification of the actual question, which is whether or not a rezoning would have been more appropriate, given that 8 storey on top of the original 4 approved storeys is fairly significant. Seifi went on to explain a past question instead of addressing this question.

Elevation of Subject Property, including uses

Councillor Woodward didn’t appear to speak against the application so much as to wonder how the proponent can attain such more value through the variance without the Township of Langley seeing any benefit. Staff response was that the application saw a long process and that contributions were built into the applications, but nothing moreso than a usual application. Seifi did later state that over the past decade or so (aligning with Mayor Froese’s term), commercial development applications have not resulted in a community plan amendment or some other trigger of “more intense negotiations” in respect to community amenity contributions. Woodward reacted with a speech that showed a tempered frustration with the status quo that had led to development not paying for development. While he brought up that we need the funding for firefighters, infrastructure, he didn’t go as far as saying even commercial development needs to be serviced by these things, but he very well could have.

“I do struggle with a variance request to triple the size of a building with essentially no tangible value other than additional DCC revenue really accruing to the municipality. Theres no additional tax revenue that comes from this… but really creating a potentially really significant amount of value for private property when in the long run, which is what I’ve brought up before, we don’t have money for ice sheets, firehalls, land… because we don’t involve proponents when we are creating significant amount of value for them… the municipality doesn’t benefit in the same way. This is… an extreme example of that.”

Councillor Eric Woodward

Since Woodward, along with other council members, only received the package on Thursday, he was in favour of attaining more information on this, along with the other requests by other members of council, such as information on traffic studies. Woodward pointed out that the report to Council had no mention of a traffic impact study.

Out of the context of the Carvolth plan which seems to be haphazardly followed in some ways but not others, I can understand the concern of Woodward and council regarding traffic. However, the plan does allow for upwards of 50 meter office buildings such as this and the NCP was approved following the interchange plans. I personally believe that there just seemed to be a disconnect between the NCP and the application in too many ways which led Council to be more skeptical of the application than usual. Had staff better prepared for how this application fits within the scope of the Carvolth NCP, many of these questions could have probably been avoided. Seifi did, however, respond that the application fit with some previous traffic study. It was not clear whether this was in reference to the original 2001 rezoning, the 2018 subdivision or the Carvolth plan, but Woodward did push back saying that he would like to see the study and would support a one meeting deferral for information to be distributed.

Mayor Jack Froese echoed Woodward’s question, now for a third time, asking why exactly this is being sought through a variance instead of a rezoning. Seifi admitted that the answer is difficult. Seifi went on to give a history of the original pre-NCP 2001 rezoning, which he explained why there seems to be a discrepancy between the zone and the community plan. He went on to read from the NCP about the Gateway node encouraging tall buildings and what sort of uses for the buildings are recommended. Although the Mayor said this was helpful, Seifi again didn’t actually answer the question.

Councillor Kim Richter suggested that since buildings of this size were not considered in the 2001 rezoning, that a public input opportunity be provided and so moved for a deferral of the application to allow for such. Councillor Long was in favour of more time for council to take a look at the application, but was not in favour of a full public hearing. He was also the first to state that the Carvolth NCP does, in fact, say 50 meters are allowed. He argued in favour of the project, but simply wants more information. He also pointed out what I did above: that proposals should include a sun shade diagram.

Councillor Woodward spoke again, inquiring to how long the Township of Langley will be suspending public input. It would seem that he would like to respect the provincial state of emergency, but push for more public input prior to application.

“I’m beginning to be concerned with the de facto suspension of public input.”

Councillor Eric Woodward

Mayor Froese took issue with Woodward’s comments stating that there had been public input and further input is not required due to COVID. The Township Clerk explained that the same people who would receive the cards (28 in this case) had received them, and had been provided an opportunity for input but they are still limited by the provincial health authority that doesn’t allow people to come together – unless you are shopping at Costco, eating out, or one of 100 at the local gym. Personally, I think what Councillor Woodward was getting at is that the lack of advertising in the local newspapers about new development permits is unnecessarily reducing the transparency of local governance and it doesn’t seem like it would be too hard to give the public greater access with the technology that is available to us.

This sort of brings us to the attempt that staff is making for the public input opportunity that council formally requested later in the session. I’m not sure if it will be posted in the Langley Advance Times newsprint edition like they use to (I haven’t seen many posted over the last 12 months), but there is a link on the website, as Councillor Blair Whitmarsh had pushed for:

There isn’t any reference to the property on the front page and even when you click on the link, the first half of the page doesn’t even have the address or location of the property. I don’t mean to be overly critical of staff, but come on – even a map or graphic of the site would probably be somewhat helpful. Anyway, that’s what this lengthy article is for, right? Granted, Staff did say that it would take maybe a week to get the information on the website and this was posted, I believe, pretty much the next day, so kudos to the tech team for getting it up quickly – I would just like to see a more user friendly interface.

Councillor Blair Whitmarsh was more strongly opposed to more public input because the people in the area did receive the cards (all 28 of them, including the batch that probably went to those renting back from the Mitchell Group’s holding properties) and it’s a commercial area and no concerns have been addressed by those 28 households (probably because they already cashed out for their 8 figure properties). Councillor Whitmarsh went on to say that the building is fantastic and will be immensely beneficial to the Township. Similar to Councillor Long, he was open to deferring the meeting so that council can have a better look at the application, but not necessarily for more public input – or at least that sending out cards to the same 28 households is necessary (I agree!). Unfortunately, Councillor Whitmarsh seems to equate the 28 postcards with the limitation of asking for public input.

Councillor Steve Ferguson was also open to receiving additional information and taking more time to look at the application, but the long time multiple term Councillor went on to ask a fairly simple, but important question of clarification:

“Are we able to change or add, make amendments to this particular development permit?”

Councillor Steve Ferguson

To which, Ramin Seifi replied:

I’m sorry, could I ask Councillor Ferguson to repeat the question?

-Ramin Seifi, General Manager, Community Development & Engineering Divisions

Ferguson went on to provide specific details of his question, ie. the option to make parking, density, landscaping changes, at this stage in the development permit process. Better understanding the question, or now actually listening to Council, Seifi replied that Council indeed can make amendments, which can be made as conditions to the development permit. Of course, if the proponent does not agree to the conditions, then the permit may not move forward at all.

Councillor Kim Richter spoke next again with concerns that the rezoning took place before there was a Carvolth NCP:

“Now because this is the gateway to the community, we’re not talking about 28 people, we’re talking about 128 THOUSAND people: is this what they want the gateway to their community to look like? They have a right to have a say in this… you don’t have to be next door neighbours to come and talk to us.”

Councillor Kim Richter

Richter blasted the idea that by not having a public hearing on this that it looks like this is being somewhat “snuck in under the radar”.

“…and that’s not right for the gateway to our community. It’s just not right.”

Councillor Kim Richter

She went on to adamantly state, after seemingly demeaning the building as a “pillar”, to side with Councillor Woodward, that if we are going from 15 meters to 50 meters that there should be a community amenity contribution applied which wasn’t considering 20 years ago when the rezoning was done:

“What’s it going to cost us in extra labour cost for firefighters to go in and fight a fire in that building if one happens. What’s it going to cost us for extra enforcement and policing. There are so many questions here that I think the community should have a say on.”

Councillor Kim Richter

Richter continued on to reinforce the point about whether or not this should be going through a rezoning process instead of a development permit with a somewhat “hidden” variance to triple the building.

Woodward again echoed this sentiment:

“For me the purpose of a [Public Information Meeting] isn’t to get a couple of feedback forms from people to sort of ignore them, or consider them and move forward anyway… it was originally… that people look at the application they look at the building, look at the design, they submit some comments and maybe the proponent makes some changes based upon those submissions. That process is gone. Sending out yellow cards to 28 people doesn’t seem like a process to me thats befitting of a variance of this magnitude.

Councillor Eric Woodward

Councillor Woodward didn’t agree to vote on simply deferring the motion for a meeting when they couldn’t have a meeting. Mayor Froese asked staff whether there were other means they were broadcasting, assuming that it would also be printed in the media, but was told it was only the postcards.

Councillor Bob Long circled back, maybe backtracking a bit on earlier comments, that he sees nothing wrong with additional public input and why not add this to a public hearing that was being scheduled in 2 weeks. Long also repeated the request that he and other councillors have requested, which is information on the sun shade requirement and traffic studies.

However, staff replied that there actually isn’t a public hearing despite it being on the calendar. She said there would not be enough time to schedule it for two weeks, due to the process of getting the cards in the mail – it would therefore have to be a month out.

After Councillor Margaret Kunst asked about why a Public Information Meeting (PIM) couldn’t just be done through Zoom or similar technology, Seifi provided a lecture that Council suspended the PIMs and there are no government mandated requirement for such for development applications. He went on say that the application “didn’t raise any red flags” regarding shade, etc. because the area is largely undeveloped. My interpretation of this is that as long as you’re the first to develop in an area of Langley Township, you don’t need to worry too much about the future buildings. But those in the future need to worry about you. Great planning.

At this time Seifi answered Woodward’s previous question that a traffic impact study was completed for the project. Seifi also corrected himself stating that there was, in fact, a shadow study done:

“I was not anticipating this level of scrutiny of this application and I did not read up on it as well as I should have.”

Ramin Seifi, General Manager, Community Development & Engineering Divisions

When Councillor Petrina Arnason asked whether the traffic study was for the previous height or current, Seifi indicated that the study was for the current 50 meter high building.

“Maybe in the future what would be helpful is to put those attachments there.”

Councillor Petrina Arnason

When I followed up on these reports personally, as of the afternoon of March 11 (3 days following the meeting), Councillor Woodward stated that he had not received the traffic impact study.

When Councillor Blair Whitmarsh asked if staff could put the information for the public input opportunity on the website, as briefly mentioned above, staff did admit that it would be difficult to attract people to the website as there would not be a mail out to the entire municipality so interested residents would have to find the website on their own. Or they could read Better Langley, read the report, and fire off their questions and comments to Don’t use the mailing link on the Feedback Website since someone didn’t proofread it.

Comments should be submitted by 12:00 noon on Friday, March 19, 2021 and will be distributed to Council prior to the March 22, 2021 meeting. Council is not permitted to receive further input following commencement of the meeting.

On the vote to defer the application for 2 weeks for attain public input, Mayor Froese voted against it, along with Councillors Whitmarsh and Kunst, with it being carried by Councillors Arnason, Davis, Ferguson, Long, Richter, and Woodward.

On the vote for council to receive information on the traffic study, the shade study and the community amenity contributions, it appeared to carry unanimously, since the Mayor did not say anyone voted against it.

Brad’s Thoughts: It’s Good, Not Great

So I’ve put in my two cents along the way regarding the fast and loose way that staff is playing this application. I 100% believe that this application should be going through a rezoning process after 20 years and an NCP later. It’s just good governance. While I am less concerned about the particular project, I fear the precedent this sort of process is making. If this was a residential development, would it be the same? Why? Why not? Why does a commercial building get treated as though it doesn’t really matter as much to the residents?

Personally, I really love the design of the building itself. It’s new, it’s unique, it’s eye catching. If anything, I wish that we could go higher than 12-storeys if we are truly looking to the future of the Gateway corridor. But alas, that is what the Carvolth NCP states and therefore the height should certainly be allowed. I absolutely love that they’ve incorporated a restaurant and some retail on the lower level and have a cool upper floor amenity area.

Site Plan of Subject Property

What I don’t like is the proliferation of surface parking and limited building coverage fronting the main road. The footprint and siting does not seem what the Carvolth plan had intended. I don’t understand, other than for cost saving measures, why there isn’t two floors of parking and limited surface parking on the south side of the site. This is what the plan seems to ask for and I feel they’ve definitely been cherry picking aspects of the plan they like (height) and disregarding what they don’t (parking placement, siting, etc.).

This is likely a result of what has been building along 200th Street so far: really mediocre office buildings set very far back and making an extremely auto-oriented corridor that represents the typical suburban office parks of 1980’s & 1990’s United States development instead of forward-thinking planning.

The design is great – it compliments the First West Credit Union building well, but let’s do better for our gateway. Are we really just going to have these 2 glass blocks? I question the overall site plan because it seems a far cry from the artist rendering the site in the plan. While I understand that these rendering are rarely accurate in anyway, going from a drawing of 8 uniquely shaped buildings in the Carbolth NCP to 2 glass blocks and a restaurant seems like we’ve been a bit deceived about the reality of the plan. Did the plan misjudge the size of the space? Are the developers being allowed to get away with surface parking instead of increased footprints because of a lack of regulation and/or guidelines or are we skirting the details of the plan?

Gateway Node of the Carvolth NCP. Subject property in the southwest quadrant.

I’m truly worried about the Carvolth Plan and the entire 200th Street corridor. There is so much greenfield and potential for this to be an exciting corridor of walkability, high value jobs and unique community amenities. Unfortunately, it’s already started to turn into a stale auto-centric boulevard of broken dreams, with warehouse-style buildings set far back from the street, winding roads, and a ton of surface parking. When I saw all the “flex commercial” zoning, this was one of the fears I had. I even doubt that the retail-oriented “high street” on 86th avenue will actually come to fruition and I don’t foresee the Mitchell Group developments of some really drab looking buildings and another hotel will add to the vibrancy of this area. When you couple this in the context of the upcoming proposal that will be the Williams strip mall, it shows that the Township of Langley continues to strive for mediocrity rather than excellence.

It was extremely frustrating to watch the one person with a stranglehold on community planning come unprepared to a meeting of a signature building in the township, assuming that there would be no criticism of it. How can the Township of Langley become a resilient forward-thinking community when our leadership doesn’t share any excitement or passion for what could be?

Examples used by the Carvolth NCP to show ideal commercial building types and design:

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